The Gonzalez Brothers: The Apache Way

How two Bronx brothers revolutionized Latin jazz

Andy and Jerry Gonzalez in performance at Zellerback Theatre in Philadelphia, Pa.
Jerry Gonzalez
Andy Gonzalez
The Fort Apache Band in 1996: Jerry Gonzalez, Larry Willis, Andy Gonzalez, John Stubblefield, Steve Berrios and Joe Ford (from left)

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In control central of Andy Gonzalez’s compact Bronx apartment in mid-October, the 60-year-old bassist and his brother, Jerry, 62, had some catching up to do.

In town from Madrid, his home since 2000, Jerry removed one CD-R after another from his bag, presenting each offering with an enthusiastic, guttural “check this out.” A Symphony Space-produced DVD of a recent homage to the brothers by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra ran on a large monitor, which shared a wall obscured by stacks of electronic gear. A narrow corridor separated these holdings from less accessible piles of vintage audio equipment; boxes filled with 8-track tapes, printed matter and bric-a-brac; and several shaky metal shelving units piled with ancient LPs and 78s.

As Andy burned duplicate discs, the brothers assessed the concert. It comprised 13 numbers, impeccably played by the ALJO and programmed by Artistic Director Arturo O’Farrill to convey the scope of the brothers’ complementary careers, spanning close to a half-century. O’Farrill commissioned fresh arrangements from the book of Jerry’s Fort Apache band, whose cusp-of-the ’90s recordings Rumba Para Monk, Earthdance and Moliendo Café set a paradigm for coalescing the vocabularies of swing-based hardcore jazz and clave-centric Afro-Cuban styles.

Spaniard Miguel Blanco, the guiding force behind Jerry’s well-wrought 2006 CD, Music for Big Band, conducted charts of the Pedro Flores standard “Obsesión” and Larry Willis’ “Nightfall,” as well as two original compositions that illuminate the trumpeter-conguero’s current activity in Spain’s Gypsy flamenco scene. The concluding section-kinetic, 13-horn performances of three staples from the book of Conjunto Libre, the salsa unit co-founded by Andy and the late timbalero Manny Oquendo in 1974, shortly after both left the employ of Eddie Palmieri-had the patrons dancing in the aisles. “We’re talking about 40 years of playing all kinds of different music in different bands,” Andy says gently. “We’ve done so much, it’s hard to make a representation of everything we got to do.”

“Andy and Jerry changed the face of Latin jazz-in fact, they defined that hybrid,” says O’Farrill, who recalled listening sessions at Andy’s home. There he heard “Arsenio Rodríguez recordings that nobody had, or Bill Evans recordings that nobody had. They’ve investigated, immersed themselves in, and appropriated each style.”

In a separate conversation, Jeff “Tain” Watts, who met the brothers via pianist Kenny Kirkland more than two decades ago, and has subbed at several Apache gigs, cosigned that assessment. “Their music is definitely a reflection of their experience,” says the drummer. “There’s always something on Jerry’s hot list, which might tie into his perspective at the moment. He’ll play some old Cuban stuff and show you how he’s incorporated a portion of that theme into an arrangement he’s working on.”

Then Watts offers this encomium: “What makes their thing special is that the jazz side is so well informed. Listening to the Apaches over the years, you can hear the swagger and vibe of the Jazz Messengers at moments, the resonant spiritual side of Coltrane’s music, the heavy drama of Miles’ quintet and, of course, what they do with Monk and Wayne. They have an intimate knowledge of how to achieve the moods associated with jazz. They’ve been successful with their hybrid without being blatant about it, just from trying to render the song with a certain dance feel. The Apache way is a template that you can use for combining a lot of different musics by paying respect to all the music you’re trying to mix. They could get more credit for that. I think a lot of musicians refer to them as an example, whether they know it or not. But I don’t see a lot of people saying it.”

“It’s Nuyorican,” Jerry says, pinpointing the sensibility that Watts described. “I listen to Trane, and I hear [Cuban rumba band] Los Muñequitos de Matanzas simultaneously in my head. It interfaces naturally. I heard how Monk would sound on the record before we did it.” He elaborated. “Our version of ‘Evidence’ is a combination of Frank Emilio and Muñequitos and Monk, together.”

This “bilingual” aesthetic stance gestated when the Gonzalez brothers were kids in the Edenwald Projects on 225th Street, home base until their teens. Their father was a gigging sonero and hi-fi buff, who passed down his old equipment to the boys when he upgraded, enabling them to listen closely to Tito Rodríguez, Arsenio Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Machito, and Cortijo with Ismael Rivera and with his own combo. On Symphony Sid’s Latin-focused radio show, they heard Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaria. In elementary school, Andy learned bass and Jerry learned trumpet; in eighth grade, homebound with a broken leg, Jerry taught himself the beats by practicing to those recordings on a borrowed conga.

Soon, the listening got up-close-and-personal: Downtown at the Village Vanguard it was Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra; crosstown at Slugs’, he heard Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Chick Corea and Lee Morgan. (Jerry was playing in a teen band with Rene McLean, whose father, Jackie, helped him get past the gatekeeper.) Uptown and downtown, they checked out Mongo and Carlos “Patato” Valdés, and heard Machito at a low-ceilinged boîte on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx called Eva’s Intimate Lounge. By high school-Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art-they were entering the fray, first in Latin jazz and later in típico contexts. “If you look at the back page of Music and Art’s 1967 yearbook, there’s a photograph of a school desk on which somebody carved the words ‘Latin jazz,'” Andy says.

“That was me,” Jerry interjects with a raspy, protracted laugh. “I graffitied ‘Latin jazz’ every place I sat.”

“But that represents what we thought about the music,” Andy continues. “I didn’t start playing more dancehall music until I got with Ray Barretto.” This transition occurred when Andy was about 17, not long after the brothers met ethnomusicologist and collector René López, who gave them access to his treasure trove of midcentury Afro-Cuban recordings, exposing them to the codes of rumba and helping them, as Andy puts it, “filter into that circuit little by little.”

“We refined our technique for that circuit,” Jerry says. “Before you even can sit down, there’s a certain way to do things. You need to know what the tumbao is, and what the quinto does, and how it matches in with the clave, where to phrase and where not to phrase. Now, the rumba shit wasn’t open publicly. Religion was one thing that separated it, but also family-if you didn’t know someone close to that circle, you couldn’t get pulled in. We got enough from the outside, listening to records. But playing in the real-deal present, you find out how what you do is wrong or right. Do something wrong, they’ll tell you right there. They’ll give you a little bop on the head.”

As Andy “understood more about the role of the bass in the dance-band form,” he evolved an approach grounded in the earthy sound and fluid tumbaos of bassist Bobby Rodríguez with Tito Puente-and, subsequently, Cuban maestro Israel “Cachao” López-that blends, as Watts puts it, “bass player logic with heavy hand-drum knowledge-he’s kind of the Ron Carter of this music.”

Jerry’s development of parallel tonal personalities on trumpet (“more intellectual”) and congas (“more physical and intuitive”) was a somewhat more complex process. “It was a shared experience,” Jerry said. “Congas is what I first played professionally, but I soon caught up to that level on trumpet, because I knew what I had to practice to get it together. On congas, my goal was to try to play like Los Muñequitos by myself, which isn’t easy. I was trying to figure the shit out-it was constant practice, constant focus, constant listening. And enjoying-it made me feel good all the time. I listened to a broad taste of drummers: Philly Joe, Roy, Elvin, Bu, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb. But I couldn’t play jazz congas. I like to superimpose my stuff on top of the swing. If it’s real, it just fits right in. If it’s corny, it don’t make it.”

The brothers made further refinements during a year with Dizzy Gillespie, who recruited Jerry in 1970 and hired Andy soon thereafter. The no-trap-set band’s single recording, Portrait of Jenny, on which Gillespie plays at a peak of melodic inspiration over a mélange of understated beats, does not hint at the “burning rhythms” the unit attained in live performance. “We were laying down our open Latin jazz kind of playing,” Andy recalls of their yearlong run. “Dizzy came over to me a few times and whispered, ‘Where’s one?’ Maybe the rhythms were a little too intricate.”

Three years with Eddie Palmieri sealed the postgraduate education. “We played for the best dancers,” Andy adds. “They need a good beat, and those who hold the best beat get the most respect. Your beat communicates to the dancers, they dance better, and that’s communicated to you.”

“I was playing a lot with Rashied Ali then, breaking all the clave rules on conga,” Jerry relates. “So one night with Eddie after a típico, I decided to do some crazy shit when it was time to solo. He started shaking his head, going, ‘No! No! No!’ ‘What the fuck-it’s my solo; I can do whatever I want.’ At the end of the night, when they were paying everybody, he wouldn’t talk to me. He told someone [he never wanted me to play in his band again]. I was hurt real bad. It made me go home and study my tumbador playing so I could try to come up to the level he wanted. When I got the gig again, he made me use just one drum for a whole year. I just played tumbao and wouldn’t riff at all. That discipline illuminated how powerful it is to just play time when it grooves.”

By now, the Gildersleeve Avenue house to which the Gonzalez family had moved-on-up midway through the ’60s was a destination for a Pan-American cohort of the famous-Gillespie, Machito, McLean, Patato, Ali, Kenny Dorham, Larry Young and Rubén Blades-and obscure, attracted by the brothers’ global perspective. Devoid of ethnic chauvinism, they treated the idioms not as separate entities but as extensions of each other. “Even people who never went there, say they did,” Andy jokes. “We’ve always been able to surround ourselves with people who played well and wanted to involve themselves in the things that we were doing.”

These informal sessions begat Grupo Folklórico, which followed a process analogous to the Kansas City-era Basie band’s practice of spontaneously generating riffs for dancers. “We created a lot of music without a sheet of paper,” Andy says. “We weren’t just playing folklore. We were experimenting with it.”

Further workshopping ensued at New Rican Village, a multidisciplinary venue at 7th Street and Avenue A that named Andy musical director in 1977. Proximity to the vibrant East Village culture mix brought wider visibility and cachet from outsiders. “Nobody was playing this kind of shit downtown,” Jerry says. “When jazz people would come up to play, they didn’t know how to deal with it.”

On these sessions, as well as shows at Soundscape, a loft at 10th Avenue and 52nd Street, Jerry worked out the repertoire documented that year on Ya Yo Me Curé, on which the first, 12-piece edition of Fort Apache navigated Monk, Ellington, Shorter and three rumbas of various flavors. Although he continued to gig and tour with this configuration throughout the ’80s, as documented on The River Is Deep and Obatalá, Jerry-whose gigging circle was expanding to include such varied jazz voices as McCoy Tyner, Kirk Lightsey, Jaco Pastorius, Kirkland and Charles Fambrough, and was beginning to make his presence felt at mainstream jazz rooms like Bradley’s and Sweet Basil-gradually developed a smaller, more jazz-centric iteration. Joining the brothers on Rumba Para Monk, from 1988, were tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson (formerly with Woody Shaw), pianist Larry Willis (who was sharing Jerry’s large Walton Avenue apartment) and trap-setter Steve Berrios, who could articulate a jazz-to-clave rhythmic lexicon as encyclopedic as Jerry’s. Their turn-on-a-dime breaks from clave to swing feels, executed with grace and slickness, remain a key signature of the Fort Apache sound.

Since Jerry’s relocation to Madrid, the apaches have convened only sporadically. Still, at an August one-off at the Blue Note and October concerts in Hartford and Philadelphia (a freak snowstorm wiped out the Newark show), with MacArthur “genius” awardee Dafnis Prieto in the drum chair, the forceful precision and head-spinning rhythmic flow were intact. Nor did the leaders’ intensity seem at all diminished by the travails of aging: The toes on Andy’s left foot were amputated in 2004 due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his health is intermittent, and he is often in a wheelchair; Jerry, who walks with a pronounced stoop, has recently had surgeries for a hernia and fused vertebrae, and his fingers are gnarled and swollen from years of striking the drums. “Congas is like running a marathon,” Jerry says. “You’ve got to have endurance, and there’s a certain way you have to hit the drums to get the sound crispy, the way you want it. Then after I’ve been beating the drums, I’ve got to come in with the hand and grab the horn real quick and get my oxygen back, and be in there, automatic, instantly.”

“Sometimes the adrenaline takes over and you forget you’re sick, and just play,” adds Andy, who had been in the ER with a fever on the morning of the Symphony Space concert.

A recent recording on Sunnyside, Jerry Gonzalez y El Comando de la Clave, documents several parallel flavors that Jerry has developed over his Spanish decade. “The Comandantes of Clave” are a quartet of Madrid-based Cubans: Javier “Caramelo” Masso on piano, Alaín Pérez on electric bass and Kiki Ferrer on drums. All get ample room to stretch. The group feels looser, more contemporary than its American counterpart, discoursing in a manner that sounds like a more refined edition of Grupo Folklórico conjoined with a less hard-bop-oriented Fort Apache, playfully transitioning from guaguancó voice-and-drums passages to balls-out blowing and elegant, soulful balladry. Behind Jerry’s on-point solos, Ferrer plays homegrown Afro-Cuban grooves and textures with exemplary force and finesse, while Perez, a quality sonero who also possesses prodigious bass chops, uncorks a formidable string of solos that Jerry propels on congas. For the set-closer, Tito Rodríguez’s “Avísale a Mí Contrario,” Jerry brings in vocalist Diego “el Cigala” and Israel “Piraña” Suárez on cajón, continuing an ongoing dialogue with the best and brightest of Spain’s Gypsy nuevo flamenco community. That scene was first documented on 2004’s Y Los Piratas del Flamenco, which also included guitarist Niño Josele. “Jerry gets inside the flamenco rhythms,” says pianist and flamenco-meets-jazz pioneer Chano Domínguez, who did a series of concerts with Gonzalez in 2003. “People in Spain love his music, and love him, and he wants to play with everyone he can. He can play any standard in any style. When I heard Moliendo Café in the early ’90s, it suggested a way to put together flamenco and jazz, and made me feel that I was on the right path.”

“A lot of people in Spain tell me they’re happy I came and stayed, because I put a chip on everybody’s ass and made them strive for more,” Jerry says, evincing no false modesty.

Both brothers thought that the “strive for more” trope would be as much a part of their legacy as their extraordinary music. “Generations of people have learned from the things that I’ve done and become better musicians through my mentoring,” Andy says. “You can’t ask for better than that.”

“I’m a nice guy, a sharing person, a serious musician-and I can get evil if you fuck with me,” Jerry concludes. “At Symphony Space, I was brought to tears at moments. I never expected something like that to happen. We’re still alive. We’re lucky they caught us in time.”